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‘Knee-jerk reaction’ put Flyers in a corner, triggering removal of Kate Smith statue, former club VP says

Lou Scheinfeld is the executive who decided to use Smith’s “God Bless America” recording before a 1969 game at the Spectrum.

The Kate Smith statue as it appeared before it was removed.
The Kate Smith statue as it appeared before it was removed.Read more--- Steven M. Falk / Staff photographer

Flyers officials declined to elaborate Monday on the statement they made Sunday about removing Kate Smith’s bronze statue from outside Xfinity Live!, but a former club executive said the team had painted itself into a corner once it covered the statue with a black tarp.

“I’m very sad and disappointed. I think the whole thing could have been handled differently,” said Lou Scheinfeld, who was vice president of the Flyers when he decided to use Smith’s “God Bless America” recording before a 1969 game at the Spectrum. “But at this point, they had no choice. It was obvious they couldn’t leave it covered up and they couldn’t uncover it.”

Covering the statue was a mistake, Scheinfeld said, and put the Flyers in a tough spot. "When you make a knee-jerk reaction, you can’t take it back.”

If the Flyers took the cover off, “the statue would have been a flash point for people who were supporting Kate and for people who were vilifying her,” Scheinfeld said. “They couldn’t let that symbol sit there and allow it to be used by activists or fans. I’ve had people call me and say, ‘If you want to start a petition [to save the statue], I’ll contribute money to it.’ The statue is not coming back.”

Scheinfeld said the Flyers made a mistake by rushing to judgment shortly after the Yankees stopped using “God Bless America” during the seventh inning after a fan alerted the team that the singer had recorded two problematic songs in the 1930s.

Smith’s “God Bless America” at Flyers games, Scheinfeld said, had “played itself out, anyway. But then covering up the statue, that was grotesque.”

The Flyers released a statement Sunday, saying some songs the late Smith performed in the 1930s contained “lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization and provoke painful and unacceptable themes.”

“We cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today,” club president Paul Holmgren said in a statement.

Holmgren and Dave Scott, chairman of the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast Spectacor, declined requests Monday to answer questions about the decision.

The Flyers also removed Smith’s “God Bless America” from their playlist because of 1930s songs she recorded that included racially-charged lyrics.

If Flyers co-founder and chairman Ed Snider were still alive, Scheinfeld said, he does not believe the statue would have been covered or removed.

“He had a lot of courage, and I think he would have taken some time to think about it and talk to his people about it and get a feel from the fans,” Scheinfeld said. “This thing happened 80 years ago, and it’s even questionable about whether it’s satire or not. Paul Robeson, the great black singer, sang it, so there’s a lot of extenuating circumstances. I don’t think there was any time given for an intelligent discourse.”

Local Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif had called for the Flyers to remove the statue and said he and other activists had expressed their anger over Smith’s work to the team through social media, emails, and phone calls for more than a year.

In a Twitter poll that had 5,285 respondents, 27 percent said the Flyers made the correct decision to remove the statue. Forty-eight percent said their decision was wrong, and 25 percent said the issue didn’t matter to them.

Bob Clarke, the Flyers’ senior vice president, said it seemed foolish to go back so many years with the Smith controversy. “They call it politically correct, even if it’s not correct,” he said.

Smith was considered the Flyers’ good-luck charm. Including the 2018-19 season, the Flyers had a 101-31-5 record when Smith’s recording was played before a home game, or the late singer made a live appearance.

Scheinfeld first played Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at a Flyers game instead of the national anthem in 1969. He said he did it because a growing number of fans were showing a lack of respect for the anthem, noting there was division created by the Vietnam War.

Clarke, generally regarded as the greatest player in Flyers history, said Smith was not a racist.

“I got to meet her and talk with her and socialize with her,” he said. "Just a wonderful, wonderful lady.”

Smith died at age 79 in 1986, four years after she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.